[Note: Jeff responded in the comments and I retract some of what I wrote here in my response.]

Here is Rush Limbaugh’s take on the Abu Ghraib photos and response:

This is no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation and we’re going to ruin people’s lives over it and we’re going to hamper our military effort, and then we are going to really hammer them because they had a good time. You know, these people are being fired at every day. I’m talking about people having a good time, these people, you ever heard of emotional release? You heard of [the] need to blow some steam off?

When I read this I just started screaming incomprehensibly in my kitchen. I’m not sure how to argue with this point, or how to argue with Jeff’s apologia:

I think these prison guards slipped down a slope from frustration to anger and at some point took out that anger in an incomprehensible way. Read the description in that Times article of the inane stuff they made these Iraqis do and you begin to wonder what brought these people this far. If I was thrown in the same position would I have done any better? I don’t know.

This is a convenient theory that is very dramatic. I’m sure there are many plays that have been written in which a tense prison situation finally snaps and the guards enact a terrible scene of retribution and abuse, misdirected at a prisoner. I am not imputing Limbaugh’s view to Jeff, but they do share one idea: they see the torture of these prisoners as point events that are explicable given the circumstances.

Part of the point of military training as I understand it is to allow soldiers to make level-headed decisions in stressful situations. I have no idea how stressful it is out in the field where you are getting shot at, or in a prison where insurgents are trying to arrange prison breaks every night. Seymour Hersh cites the Taguba report:

There was a special women’s section. There were young boys in there. There were things done to young boys that were videotaped.

Abuses like that take premeditation. It is not a couple of people blowing off steam, nor is it slipping down the slope into a single incomprehensible act of violence. It shares the casual nature of the former and the degenerative aspect of the latter, but these acts were a way of life in this prison.

There is a separation that needs to be made between novelty and revulsion, and I think Jeff almost makes it. I was not surprised that abuses were happening in the prisons — after all, this is war, and war is not pretty and people do terrible things. I am nevertheless horrified at the casual nature of the violence, that this treatment of the prisoners had become so everyday. I am horrified that there have been three investigations and nothing has been done. I am horrified that this violence was sanctioned by higher authorities and that nobody is taking responsibility.

Things are better now than they were before. Perhaps prisons are better in Iraq than they are in the rest of the Middle East. But other Middle Eastern regimes do not pretend to be free societies that afford their citizens the rights that the US upholds. We are supposed to be building a model for a society, and we are tripping dangerously close to “come meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”